Sinclair Refining laboratory… at Corpus Christi Texas, by Robert Yarnall Richie via DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University (no copyright restrictions)

Enhancing learning in lab-based science education through re-designing assessment practices

Yesterday we had a really successful seminar with @seerym (Michael Seery) and @Breebio (Ronan Bree) opening up the lab practical for critical and practical inquiry.  The event attracted attracted over 40 colleagues from @NUIG including technical officers, post-doctoral students, educational technologists and academic developers, as well as lecturers.

In this post I will focus on the challenges offered by Michael’s contribution.

Michael was asked to problematise the lab practical as it normally appears in the science curriculum in higher education.  Those who know Michael’s work will be aware that unpacking the role of the lab practical has been a central focus of his work, so much so that he is endeavouring to write a book on the subject. An interesting resource on the ideas covered in the seminar is a post by Michael last year.  I will make some reference to it here.  The seminar offered Michael an opportunity to rehearse the central argument of his book.  I will try to outline some of the central issues and questions below.

  • Lab practicals, contrary to the professional discourse, do not warrant the effort expended on them
  • Despite the claims made that practical classes reinforce the theory and develop core skills there is no evidence to support this
  • The usual model for organising practicals result in negligible learning gains, over assess students without resulting in incremental improvements in either theoretical understanding or scientific skills, and have no demonstrable link with lecture series.

Practical classes can often be epitomised by the rush for the door where students correctly read the deep structure of the classes as being to get the experiment done as quickly as possible, write the lab report, and leave.  An average undergraduate can produce at least 125 lab reports without there being any substantial improvement in their scientific knowledge over that period related to the lab practicals.

Instead of making the false assumption that practical classes are locations for teaching theory, Michael, along with others, propose a different presumption

  • Organise lab practicals and lectures separately, each having a distinct function
  • Lectures become the means by which students are invited to engage with disciplinary knowledge, core concepts, troublesome knowledge, threshold concepts, etc.
  • Lab practicals then become the vehicles for developing and practicing disciplinary ways of doing, of practicing the scientific method. [I hope I have this distinction right…I’m sure Michael will correct me]

A number of practical ideas were offered to illustrate what a lab curriculum could look like.  I will focus on just a few.

  • Keep the traditional deductive approach but include decision points
    • Michael argued that there was nothing particularly wrong with the traditional deductive approach of practical classes.  Lab work should operate within a knowledge framework but should free itself from a ‘cook book’ approach.  The experiment would be organised around a series of decision points, where students would need to make informed choices about possible routes (having compared entity 1 with entity 2) what method would I use to test (hypothesis x)…I think.
  • Fewer but more powerful assessment points
    • There is no logical or necessary reason why students should have to produce a report for every lab.  Rather than producing 12 reports for a series of 12 labs why not 3 more substantive and focused assessment points which require students to go deeper into the topic/skill and educators to provide useful formative assessment.  In addition why not organise the assessment points so that each point build a basis for the next set of labs and assessment?
    • Based on the theory of cognitive load Michael suggested that assessment could focus on specific skill sets rather than being assessed on every dimension of the experiment.
  • Lab reports can simulate the research article
    • Michael suggested that lab reports should support the rationale that lab practicals develop disciplinary ways of doing and being by emulating the research article.
  • Diversify the modes of reporting
    • While lab reports might be perfect for some forms of assessment we should consider other modes of reporting learning.  One example provided was that of students using mobile devices to video each other practicing certain lab skills and then peer assessing this (with the added advantage that the videos can go into students’ portfolios and be used in securing internships or even jobs).

Certainly a lot of food for thought and I will certainly be back to discuss this again.




Beautiful Landscape With Bridge, by George Hodan License: CC0 Public Domain

Can students take a lead on managing and promoting their own learning?

Does this have to happen in the confines of institutional virtual learning environments?

Can academics and students take back control of their digital presence?

These were all questions explored yesterday in a workshop facilitated by Jim Groom at the National University of Ireland Galway title: Student As Partner: Enhancing Student Engagement Through a Focus on Assessment As Learning in Digital Spaces.

Let me quote from the advertising text to give you a flavour of what this event sought to deal with

The Student as Producer model advocates a pedagogic approach foregrounding student voice, choice and creativity so that students can recognise themselves in a world of their own design and take responsibility for their own learning. This has broad ramifications across the institution with respect to digital technology, learning spaces, and assessment (Healy et al., 2014; Neary et al., 2015). The Domain of One’s Own initiative emphasises a partnership approach to teaching and learning, and reworks the relationships between research and teaching; producing and consuming; and educators and students (Groom & Lamb, 2014). Partnership with students, not only as learners but as teachers and assessors, can contribute to developing graduate attributes and personal learning networks that can sustain students/graduates well beyond their time in higher education.


Groom, J., & Lamb, B. 2014. Reclaiming innovation. Educause Review (June 2014).

Healey, M., Flint, A., & Harrington, K. 2014. Engagement through partnership: Students as partners in learning and teaching in Higher Education. York: Higher Education Academy.

Neary, M., Saunders, G., Hagyard, A. & Derricott, D. (2015). Student as Producer: Research-engaged teaching, an institutional strategy. York: Higher Education Academy.


It is time for me to own up to the fact that I was co-responsible for this event along with my colleague Catherine Cronin.  I am not an educational technology person so the event was conceived as an exploration of the space between different sets of ideas, specifically those of ‘student as producer’ and ‘open educational practices‘ (OEP), using Domain of Ones Own (DoOO).  Catherine has already written about her hopes for the workshop and will write refections on it shortly.   I want to focus on the elements I was mostly interested in and the thoughts I have had following working with Jim.

I was particularly interested in how ideas of students as producers (SaP) could articulate with technologies associated with open educational practices.  In the workshop I outlined SaP as covering at least three dimensions;

  • Students as researchers: students engaged in different kinds of research like activity, and presenting the outcome of their inquiries.
  • Students devising learning materials: students involved in the development of curricular materials.  For instance a project at the University of Lincoln UK involved undergraduate students producing a range of learning materials for an Introduction to Chemistry course.
  • Students as assessors: biology students at Vanderbilt University USA were engaged in devising laboratory based experiments and the assessment of these as an alternative to the traditional lab practical.

From my perspective students are engaged in assessment as learning in all of these examples.  Students not only need to know what to learn, but why  that knowledge is important (compared to alternatives), and to determine how they can learn.  When further developed students also engage in generating new knowledge and meaning.

But how does this dovetail with OEP?

One way of understanding how approaches such as DoOO align with SaP is articulated by Audrey Waters recently as concerning,

  • Students have lost control of their personal data

  • By working in digital silos specially designed for the classroom (versus those tools that they will encounter in their personal and professional lives) students are not asked to consider how digital technologies work and/or how these technologies impact their lives

  • Education technologies, particularly those that enable “algorithmic decision-making,” need transparency and understanding

(You can substitute the word “scholar” for “student” in all cases above, too, I think.)


Whether it is VLEs, Twitter, LinkedIn, Academia or other platforms, we exchange our personal data and learning outcomes and teaching materials (in the case of VLEs) in exchange for use of these proprietorial services.  DoOO offers the opportunity to control how our personal data is used and to control our digital presence.  Jim shared examples of how academics were able to fashion strong digital identities that were not confined to the institution they happened to work in at any particular moment.  This meant they could construct digital identities that were not confined to corporate priorities and branding.  The same can be done by students.  This relates to an issue raised both by Audrey Waters in her blog post and Catherine Cronin at the workshop – that the nature of VLEs and proprietorial platforms means that students and academics do not really engage with digital literacies such as protection of personal data, privacy, copyright, etc.

DoOO, for me, is attractive because it can be supportive of public and open scholarship.  Similarly, it can support students to be producers of knowledge and meaning rather than consumers.


Posthuman exploration of learning as an exercise in open scholarship

Posthuman exploration of learning in a pharmacology laboratory practical – consequences for academic development

 [This draft is being shared in the spirit of open scholarship. If you would like to offer observations on the work please do so via 

This draft should not be quoted without the permission of the author.]

Posthuman exploration of learning in a pharmacology laboratory practical – consequences for academic development is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Over some months I have shared my reading and thinking related to a writing project that drew on practice and posthuman theories to inquire into the nature of learning.  You will find these posts here,  here and here.  My blog has been a space for sharing my ongoing intellectual work in an open way, and sharing its messiness.  In this full public draft you will see how I have built directly on my previous posts, but also how I have further developed the emergent ideas. The blog has thus acted as a place to rehearse my writing.  I would welcome any feedback as a kind of open source review of this draft.



When we think of learning we usually think of the brain, of learning as a primarily cognitive activity. When we think of higher education learning this assumption becomes even more evident. This cultural default is seen in the distinction offered by the terms ‘knowledge’ and ‘skills’, where knowledge is the weightier and more important of the two, especially in its uncoupling from the physical. And if this is how we habitually imagine knowledge what of the spaces within which higher education knowledge is acquired? Do we imagine them as spaces of the mind?

I recall standing in one such space. This was not the objective almost abstract space often referred to in ‘how to’ teach texts. This was a particular space, new to me but very familiar to its inhabitants. I looked out from my corner and observed rows of benches arranged in parallel lines. Along each row were stools, clustered in pairs along one long edge of the bench. Computer screens and keyboards took up some of the space in front of the stools. There were instruments on the benches that I will later learn are ‘vortexes’ that vibrate and help to mix solutions in test tubes. Facing the stools across the wooden surface are shelving that stretch along the other long edge, forming a kind of wall. And on the shelving stood beakers, and pots, and books. At one end of the bench stood a sink, and a weighing machine enclosed in a glass cabinet. All benches were the same. Elsewhere in the room were other machines, other computer screens and keyboards, other kinds of measuring equipment, and a large screen at the front of the room where the lecturer’s slides were displayed. The first impression was the shier quantity of machines or equipment of different kinds. This is different from the learning spaces I am used to where, apart from a computer and some form of table, it is paper and books that are mostly present. My social scientific space is not the “…place densely stacked with instruments and materials and populated by researchers” which represents the scientific space as noted by Karin Knorr Cetina (Cetina, 2009, p. 25). I was immediately fascinated by the array of equipment and what this meant for the activities I observed. This was not the social science space I was accustomed to but a pharmacology laboratory practical. The spatial arrangement obviously says something about the structure and culture of knowledge and the signature pedagogies of chemistry and pharmacology (see Shulman, 2006 for discussion of signature pedagogies).

Also in the room were bodies, lots of bodies. In fact a little over 50 bodies. Initially the social distinction between the bodies was not apparent since all wore white laboratory coats. The distinctions become clearer as the bodies took up their allocated places. ‘Students’ were defined by sitting in pairs on the stools, forming ‘work stations’ in their relationship with that part of the bench, and shelving, and computer. The benches were thus populated in this way. At the sides of the room were others who were not that distinct from those who were obviously the students in this setting. They were similarly young, similarly dressed. While they were ‘students’ in the sense that they were conducting postgraduate studies, in this particular setting they are ‘instructors’ and so are socially different to the undergraduate students arranged around their workstations. There was one other person also dressed in a white laboratory coat. Their status as ‘lecturer’ was more clearly marked, being older than both ‘students’ and ‘instructors’, dressed differently beneath the laboratory coat, and perhaps importantly, standing at the front of the room by the screen looking down across all the benches.

My own position in the room was not neutral; it was not without some regard. I was there to see what ‘teaching’ meant in different disciplines in my university. My role as an academic/educational developer meant that I worked with lecturers across the disciplines to ‘develop’ their academic practice, particularly in relation to teaching and learning in higher education. But I come from a particular background, from a sub-discipline in the social sciences. What exactly did ‘teaching’ mean when this became the object of reflection for a chemist, and in this instance in the discipline of pharmacology?   It was developmental in that I felt the need to observe disciplinary teaching in order to better understand the context of practice that would be reflected upon by a colleague taking one of our courses. But it also related to a key methodological approach in academic development, that of ‘decoding the disciplines’ (Middendorf & Pace, 2004). If I was to support colleagues from a range of disciplinary backgrounds to grasp the pedagogical knowledge (Shulman, 2006)needed to support student disciplinary learning, I needed to understand the pedagogic context of practice and its specific disciplinary modes. And this indexes the ontological terrain upon which I stood and observed the pharmacology laboratory practical before me. My observation was filtered, for the most part, through the lens of constructivist discourses of learning that placed the student learning experience as central to pedagogical concerns (Ramsden, 2006). I was attuned to trying to understand how the students went about the business of learning in this context. The heterodox view in academic development is that better understanding of the student experience of learning leads to better teaching.

But, as I stood there observing the activity I found myself making mental notes that related to two sets of literature that I had been engaging with – practice theory and posthumanism. I was intrigued about how knowledge and learning was embedded in and across the varied practices the students were engaged in, and how this worked against a view of learning that placed undue attention on the purely cognitive (Nerland & Fenwick, 2014). Simultaneously I was taken with the ‘dance of agency‘ between students and the non-human – the way we might understand how ‘doing’ science may be ‘unthinkable’ without also considering the active role of the apparatus the students engaged with and the chemical compounds they relied upon in the laboratory activity (Pickering, 2010). That is, the way the students’ knowing and learning was essentially mediated by and entangled with apparatus, technology and chemical compounds. I found myself asking the following questions: What would learning look like if we went beyond the constructivist paradigm? How useful might it be to explore learning as socially embedded and distributed across human and non-human domains? And what implications would this have for my own practice as an academic/educational developer?

My approach in this paper is ‘posthumanist’ and ’emergent’ in orientation. As such it differs in emphasis to more traditional, humanist accounts of learning in higher education. It touches directly on constructivist theories of learning, which are distinctly humanist. As I will argue, my approach does not discount the importance of human agency in the learning process, but it does displace such agency as the final point of analytical reference. Instead, I extend constructivist understandings so that we consider the way human actors, processes, concepts, and non-human materials are intimately related. I argue that understanding, knowing and learning are effects of this entanglement of human, discursive and non-human. In doing this I am deeply influenced by the practice turn in social theory, especially the idea of knowledge as embedded in practice. Consequently, learning is viewed performatively, as an emergent quality, as something that emerges from practice and is not exterior to it.

I begin by outlining the activity undertaken in the pharmacology laboratory practical I observed. This works to introduce two initial readings of the situation – one based on the ‘Approaches to Teaching Inventory’ (Trigwell & Prosser, 2004), and the other ‘threshold concepts’ (Meyer & Land, 2005). This allows me to outline the doxa of my practice as an academic/educational developer and set the ground for extending this humanist approach. The next two sections then present a different ontological reading of the laboratory practical drawing on a combination of practice theory and posthumanist science. This seeks to integrate the conceptual and material dimensions of the setting and so pose generative questions about how we might understand learning in this particular context.

What does a pharmacology laboratory practical look like?

The focus of this class was a test of the toxicity of paracetamol solutions.  The pedagogic rationale for this activity can be seen to be threefold. It offers the students opportunity to practice a procedure that is fairly common to the testing of substances. Secondly, it provides a practical context for the application of pharmacological knowledge. And finally it has a very practical rationale because paracetamol toxicity is one of the most common forms of poisoning worldwide, hence the importance for those dispensing the drug having a proper understanding of its adverse effects. The students were required to conduct a colorimetric assay of a paracetamol solution in order to determine its therapeutic/toxic concentration. The assay involved the students in the preparation of a series of paracetamol solutions (some with known concentrations and some ‘unknown’) for comparative purposes involving processes of measuring (weighing and liquid measures), use of various apparatus (pipettes, including Eppendorf pipettes, flasks, vortex machines for mixing, spectrophotometer), and a number of chemical compounds (water, sodium nitrate, sodium hydroxide). Based on the reading from a spectrophotometer the students then had to construct a standard curve (based on Beer’s Law) and determine the concentration of paracetamol in the samples of ‘unknown’ toxicity. Essentially, the spectrophotometer measures the degree to which light that is passed through each solution is absorbed by the solution. The reading from the spectrophotometer is then plotted on a graph using Beer’s Law. Consequently, the greater the toxicity of the solution the higher the rate of absorption.

In observing the pharmacology laboratory practical we witness a range of human activity, including students reading array instructions from their work sheets; laboratory partners discussing the procedure, conferring over measurements and interpretations; measuring (water, paracetamol, acid, etc.) and dispensing solutions into test tubes; operating the vortex machine in order to mix the solutions; placing samples into the spectrophotometer and then interpreting the results; charting the graph and locating the toxicity of the ‘unknowns’; and all the time recording the process and results. It is clearly busy. Students are constantly moving around their benches, interacting with each other, using equipment, and writing. The lecturer moves around the room observing, asking pairs and individual students questions, offering advise. The teaching assistants also observe, question and advise. They can be seen standing back and looking across the benches they are responsible for, checking whether students are following the procedure correctly, paying particular attention to the production of the correct solutions. These instructors are some times called upon by students to advise, and at other times they step in at critical moments. Advice is often formative, sometimes summative. But what is the meaning of this activity? What is it about all this activity that leads students to comprehend the discipline of pharmacology? There would be little point to all this activity if it did not enable students to better understand pharmacology, indeed lead to a change in understanding and a new orientation to the world.

Within the scholarship of teaching and learning this issue of understanding is often configured around the privileging of student-focused conceptual change approaches to teaching (Trigwell, Prosser, & Waterhouse, 1999) or deep learning (Marton & Säljö, 1976). In my role as an academic/educational developer I am frequently encouraging my faculty colleagues to re-orient themselves from a content (disciplinary knowledge) centred approach to teaching to one that considers teaching in light of the student experience of learning. Consequently, much of the knowledge base of my own practice are empirical studies of this student experience (Entwistle & Peterson, 2004; Entwistle & McCune, 2004; Prosser, Ramsden, Trigwell, & Martin, 2010; Trigwell & Prosser, 1991; 2006) and of university teachers’ pedagogic intentions . In many ways this perspective forms a doxic frame of reference for academic/educational development work. My tendency then would be to view the pharmacology laboratory practical through this lens.

An early iteration of this doxic frame is a study conducted by some of the key thinkers in the scholarship of teaching and learning, Keith Trigwell and Michael Prosser (Trigwell & Prosser, 1996). This study sought to examine university teachers’ pedagogic intentions by exploring the extent to which their teaching approaches were student/teacher centred and oriented towards information transmission or conceptual change. This research is particularly relevant here because it focused on the teaching of first year chemistry and physics. Significant is the association between student centred approaches and conceptual change. This analysis was further developed and formed the basis for the ‘Approaches to Teaching Inventory’ which has become a fairly widespread instrument for evaluating and mapping teaching styles (Trigwell & Prosser, 2004). The research asserts that deep learning is strongly associated with student centred approaches to teaching. Informed by this approach we might follow the lead offered by Michael Prosser and colleagues and inquire into the relationship between the pharmacology lecturer’s conception of disciplinary knowledge and the teaching strategies and intentions behind the laboratory practical (Prosser, Martin, Trigwell, Ramsden, & Lueckenhausen, 2005). We would want to examine the extent to which the lecturer conceived of chemical knowledge as a set of isolated pieces of information and skills or was based on related concepts, issues and procedures. Furthermore, we might then seek to understand if these concepts, issues and procedures are understood as linked or related in an integrated fashion. We would then observe if this way of understanding chemical knowledge manifested in particular pedagogic practices.

Another useful way of interpreting the activity in the laboratory practical is through ‘Threshold concepts’(Meyer & Land, 2005). Here, the emphasis would be on the identification of particular concepts, processes and practices essential for students to fully enter a disciplinary way of thinking and so promote deep learning. For instance, Vincente Talanquer

(Talanquer, 2015) states that,

If we were to ask chemistry teachers and instructors to list some threshold concepts in chemistry, it is likely that many of them would include concepts such as “Atomicity”, “Chemical Bonding”, “Intermolecular Forces”, and “Chemical Equilibrium”. (p.4)

Talanquer’s argument is that chemistry students often encounter particular difficulties in grasping the underlying meaning of key features of disciplinary knowledge. For instance, students will understand chemical compounds in an ‘additive’ or ‘intrinsic’ fashion, viewing the different elements that make up a compound as static. ‘Learning’ then becomes a matter of adding on bits of knowledge. Transformation of their disciplinary understanding comes about when they grasp the dynamic and emergent properties of both compound and element. This also challenges the pedagogic assumptions made by educators. Talanquer notes the tendency for educators to argue that undergraduate students, particularly in earlier years of study, cannot deal with the overly abstract nature of these ontological aspects of disciplinary knowledge and that they have to concentrate on teacher centred information transfer approaches in order to build a base for later, deeper thinking. This gives rise to what Courtney Ngaia, Hannah Seviana and Vicente Talanquer term a ‘toolbox’ approach of loosely related topics, the introduction of chemical nomenclature, and isolated skills (such as laboratory protocols) (Ngai, Sevian, & Talanquer, 2014).   Instead, these authors propose the need to base the chemistry curriculum on sets of central questions aimed at the development in students of authentic ‘chemical thinking’. They develop this proposal through a discussion of ‘chemical identity’ as a disciplinary specific, but cross-cutting threshold concept. Chemical identity refers to the ways of thinking associated with identifying one entity as distinct from another, and doing so in relation to its extrinsic and dynamic properties.

We could imagine, therefore, viewing the pharmacology laboratory practical using these concepts. As with the ideas suggested earlier, these are also oriented towards developing pedagogic practices that maximize deeper forms of learning. We might be guided, therefore, to inquire into whether the way the laboratory practical is set up encourages students to see both the integrated nature of what they are doing (applying knowledge, operating equipment, following protocols, measuring, interpreting and reporting) and allows both students and educators to uncover implicit assumptions about chemical knowledge and properties. This last point is central to the studies on ‘chemical identity’ conducted by Talanquer and colleagues. This would suggest that any assessment of learning that might be going on in the laboratory practical would be focused on students’ ontological assumptions and how these influence their chemical reasoning.

It is my view that both of these are perfectly legitimate and worthwhile approaches to take. Both offer academic developers and educators more widely a lot of thoughtful and considered material for reflection on academic practice and student learning.   And both are based on similar ethical commitments to maximizing deep learning for as many students as possible. But let’s go back to the initial observation. Here we see a dynamic setting that not only involves interaction between different categories of human agent – student-to-student; student-to-teaching assistant; student-to-lecturer; teaching assistant-to-lecturer; teaching assistant-to-teaching assistant; teaching assistant-to-student; and lecturer to all. But we also see the necessary interrelationships between all these human agents and objects of various kinds – work benches, pens, computers (and the algorithms that make them function); presentation software, chemical substances and compounds, vortex machines, spectrophotometers, taps and sinks, measuring machines; as well as concepts, issues and procedures. To speak predominantly of the human and the cognitive, as do the approaches I have reviewed, seems to bypass essential ingredients of the ontological landscape of learning. And so, it is the relevance and importance of ‘artefacts’ that I want to turn to in the next section.

Protocols, epistemic objects, and knowledge centred activity


Beyond the mainstream of the scholarship of teaching and learning, and academic development, are theories of practice that take seriously the interaction of human and non-human that could usefully be applied to the learning context before me. Practice foregrounds “…the acts of making knowledge” (Cetina, 2009, p. 9). This seems apt for an educational setting. And so learning and teaching might be about doing things, and I want to argue it is about human engagements with the world, and specifically how this relationship between human and non-human can be understood as central to epistemic practices. In this section my emphasis is on the role of non-human objects in the mediation of epistemic practice. Therefore, I propose that the particular knowledge being dealt with in the pharmacology laboratory practical is situated within the practices undertaken in the laboratory and mediated by the engagement with non-human objects and the protocols the students follow in their testing of paracetomol toxicity. I will be using the terminology of ‘epistemic objects’ and ‘epistemic practices’, drawn from the work of Karin Knorr Cetina (2009)(epistemic cultures), and Monika Nerland and Karen Jensen (Nerland & Jensen, 2014). The array and the protocols the students follow are examples of what Nerland and Jensen call epistemic objects. In this particular case it is the inquiry into the problem of toxicity and how to determine it that organizes the activities undertaken in the laboratory. They provide examples such as the way ‘care’ operates as an epistemic object for nurses, or medical procedures for doctors. Epistemic objects invite purposeful activity such as assessing, evaluating, recording results, etc. It is these practices that we can term epistemic. But first I want to explore how the artefacts that are necessary for epistemic practices can be usefully discussed in terms of tools and signs.

How artefacts work as tools and signs to create a laboratory practical

The scene I observed in the pharmacology laboratory practical had all the semiotic cues that would lead most observers to conclude that what was going on in this space was science. The benches and the other non-human artefacts – measuring instruments and machines, as well as water and various chemicals function both as ‘tools’ that enable the practices of scientific endeavour (and science education in this case) but also as ‘signs’, signaling a particular meaning to the practices undertaken in this space. The Danish anthropologist Cathrine Hasse has examined the way objects work simultaneously as tools and signs in relation to scientific practice and technology.   For instance, she discusses the use of ‘Paro’, a piece of adaptive technology (socially assistive robot) designed to bring comfort and stimulation to the elderly and those with Alzheimer’s (Paro works as a robotic pet that can be stroked, will pur, etc.) (Hasse, 2013). Hasse suggests that simultaneous with working as a ‘tool’- as a robot it works to calm agitated patients, it also functions as a ‘sign’ in the sense that it ‘speaks’ to us in a meaningful fashion.  Building on insights developed by Vygotsky and taken up in activity theory ‘tools’ can be seen as those things that mediate human action on their environment whereas a ‘sign’ mediates this internally on our consciousness.  The use of tools can have a transformative effect on the material world as when, proposes Hasse, we learn to develop and use an axe in order to cut down trees with the intention of building a house.  Although signs are oriented to consciousness they are also implicated in human action on their environments. Again, Hasse notes, as when an axe becomes meaningful to human activity (a sign) in terms of its role in securing desired shelter, or as an aggressive weapon to defend oneself or dominate others. Hasse argues that in reality the distinction between tool and sign breaks down as we treat artefacts meaningfully.

What does this mean in the context of the pharmacology laboratory practical? Hasse’s argument indicates that learning in this context is related in some way to the meaningful relationship with artefacts, in this case material apparatus as well as concepts and processes. The particular arrangement of bodies, apparatus and the circulation of concepts at play in this space constitute it as a ‘laboratory’, as a particular kind of space linked to specific structures of knowledge and social activity – science. Earlier I noted how different this space was to the social scientific one I am more familiar with, and that the abundance of artefacts was a significant feature of this difference. Mirroring Hasse I could say that it is this specific functioning of artefacts as tools and signs that makes it a pharmacology laboratory practical. It is this arrangement of bodies to artefacts and processes that, according to Karin Knorr Cetina (2009), produces what we call scientific knowledge. This is an approach that views scientific knowledge as an effect of what scientists do (and often do with artefacts) rather than as a disembodied object of cognition.

A laboratory can also bee seen as working simultaneously as a tool (a delineated space for a specific activity) and as a sign (the spatial and social arrangements within the space as well as the artefacts and procedures giving legitimacy to the activity as science). Laboratories gain their social significance in turning aspects of the natural order into epistemic objects that are manipulated through the operation of particular methodologies. Importantly, though, for Knorr Cetina laboratories are not just spaces within which social agents act upon natural objects. The scientist, or the science student in this case, is not the social counterpart to chemical compounds or water or machine. Within the laboratory the students do not deal with chemicals in their natural state but in transformed states as ‘images, extractions, and a multitude of other things’ (Cetina, 2009, p. 32)and instead scientists work with “…object images or with their visual, auditory, or electrical traces, and with their components, their extractions, and their “purified” versions” (p.27). In this particular space the students engage with paracetamol through a trace, through an electronic representation of the degree of light absorption as worked through the (spectrophotometer). The students will seldom engage with the ‘things themselves’. Knorr Cetina’s argument is that scientists are also transformed by the laboratory, molded behaviorally depending on the social organization of specific scientific enterprises and the reliance on artefacts for conducting scientific activity. For instance, she contrasts the epistemic cultures that arise in large scale high energy physics experiments such as those in the CERN particle accelerator, compared to smaller scale molecular biology experiments. Only certain kinds of human activity are available or legitimate within the context of the laboratory, and the objects of the laboratory delimit social agency. There is then, for Knorr Cetina, disunity in practice between these two scientific endeavours, the scientists do different kinds of science, produce different kinds of knowledge. The two examples in her study represent two different epistemic cultures.

The pharmacology laboratory practical takes on the character of a ‘workshop’ similar to the molecular biology work in Knorr Cetina’s study of epistemic cultures. The whole point of the activity in the room is to intervene and manipulate chemical compounds. Scientific endeavor in this context is not framed by a principle of non-interference, in fact the opposite. From this orientation of scientific endeavor comes the actual behaviours the students have to engage in, and which can be captured in the protocols they are required to follow. While the term protocol can often refer to seemingly non-signifying activities, from the perspective of epistemic culture they are in fact deeply significant. Protocols can be seen as epistemic practices related to particular conceptions of scientific endeavor. Similarly, the various artifacts that make up this space as a laboratory, and not some other kind of space, should also be understood as epistemic objects (Cetina, 1997). It would, I think, be a mistake to consider the various machines and containers, for instance, as only having instrumental value (act as tools). Instead, they do epistemic work related to the development of scientific expertise (also act as signs). The ability to understand the toxicity of any paracetamol compound is unthinkable in the absence of these artefacts. Scientific knowledge is therefore bundled with epistemic objects and epistemic practices. There is, then, an intimate relationship between the ‘expert’ (the lecturer as well as the science student) and ‘epistemic objects’ (the way tools function as signs) (Cetina, 1997). The knowledge work of the students can be seen to be done through the interaction with epistemic objects and “…the reaction granted by them” (Cetina, 2008, p. 83). This interaction is mediated via ‘protocols’, the particular procedures by which the scientist conducts an experiment, in this case a paracetamol array. Protocols take on the character of ‘knowledge centred practice’ as defined by Karin Knorr Cetina. This doesn’t mean that protocols enable students to access or acquire knowledge as something that lies outside of their doing in the laboratory. To be proficient (that is approach being expert) means that the various objects such as beakers, pipettes, vortex machines, etc. become almost invisible in the hands of the student. That is the object in mind is that of producing the results. It is to this object of knowledge that the student stands in relation, not the artifacts surrounding them and which are necessary for producing the results. They are a means to an end, simple tools. It is only when something goes wrong that the student will suddenly be in relation to the artefact directly.

This routinized mode of behavior means that the boundaries between human and non-human, and between artefacts blurs. Let me give an example. As part of the protocol students use Eppendorf pipettes to measure out specified quantities of water solution. On first attempt the student may be all too aware of the separation of human mind and eye and hand with the instrument of the pipette and the solution to be measured. It has an awkward quality about it, the movement stilted, slow, considered. However, once the student has become more proficient the boundary between all of these becomes less obvious. This resembles the transparency between objects and human and non-human found by Karin Knorr Cetina in her study of epistemic cultures cited earlier (Cetina, 2009). This kind of routinized procedure is common to much laboratory and scientific practice. While the practice contained by the protocol is a knowledge centred practice, and thus an epistemic practice, it is also mindless in that students might not, in any particular moment, be conscious subjects related in a direct way with certain artefacts or processes. It is the practices of holding pipettes, manipulating pipettes, picking up beakers, holding test tubes, reading instructions or the visual displays on electronic weighing machines that are most evident. Far from being an external, disembodied object of mind, knowledge of paracetamol toxicity is bound up in the protocols, and thus entangled with instruments, processes, chemical compounds, computer algorithms, digital displays, as well as concepts and equations. Monika Nerland and Karen Jensen (Nerland & Fenwick, 2014), for instance, have investigated the way procedures are essential for how nurses and computer engineers engage with knowledge. The procedures and various artefacts this entails (texts and documents for nurses, and information technologies for the engineers) directly mediate their professional learning. Also, these intermediary objects function simultaneously as tools and signs (c.f. Hasse, 2013). These artefacts mediate understanding of how certain chemical structures interact with the human organism in potentially dangerous ways. This knowledge is both embedded in the practices I observe in the laboratory and distributed across them, no matter how mundane they may seem.



The totality of action as epistemic object and the dance of agency

In the previous section I examined some consequences of moving away from the acquisition metaphor of learning and how this confronts us with the idea of learning as a ‘doing’, to borrow from Karin Barad’s work (Barad, 2007). The intent was to make explicit the humanist and social-constructivist presumptions of learning entailing the inter-action of quite separate entities – knowledge and the knower. I sought to extend this understanding by introducing the power of artefacts as mediating this relationship, and giving artefacts a distinctive sense of agency or power in this process, in particular the elaborated discussion of artefacts functioning as tools and signs. I gave special attention to the way the laboratory protocol followed by the students had epistemic value, that it was a practice of knowing. But there still remained a distinction between knower, knowledge, and mediating artefacts. The work of posthumanist scholars invites us to further extend such understandings and to examine the ‘agency’ that ‘things’ have, to glimpse the tantalizing possibility that test tubes, Eppendorf pipettes, and chemical compounds themselves can be regarded as agentic. Through this lens the laboratory protocol, I argue, becomes a ‘dance of agency’ (Pickering, 2010)between human and non-human. What we call learning is an effect of this performance.

From paracetamol toxicity as epistemic object to array as phenomenon

Karen Barad’s (2007) work critiques the separation of scientific practice, such as measuring quantities of paracetamol, or reading the spectrophotometer display from scientific knowledge and theory. Although her work focuses on particle physics she details how the act of measuring or observing cannot be separated from scientific knowledge. For example, she considers the act of observing light scattered from an atomic particle and captured on a fixed photographic plate, rather like taking a photo. The ‘phenomenon’ or ‘event’ is neither the atomic particle nor the light itself, but the light as captured by the measuring apparatus. As with a camera the photograph is not the observed object itself but an effect of capturing the light on light sensitive material. The phenomenon is an ‘event’ that incorporates the particles, the problem under consideration (the epistemic object) and the act of measuring/observing (epistemic practice) (Barad, 2003, p. 171). Following Barad the paracetamol array and protocol as a whole is the phenomenon, rather than the toxicity of paracetamol itself. The phenomenon involves a related set of active elements including the lecturer’s intentions for the laboratory practical, the activities of the teaching assistants, the students’ engagement with the task, the functioning of the apparatus, and the action of the chemical compounds. It is worth remembering that I noted earlier the students do not encounter the toxicity of paracetamol directly. They encounter an electronic display of the degree of light absorption. And it is this that stands for toxicity.   Similarly, the toxicity of paracetamol has to be considered as an effect of the measuring activity and not as an abstract quality of the chemical compound. After all, the problem of paracetamol toxicity emerges from the relationship between the compound and the human organism. Toxicity is not in and of itself a quality of the chemical compound outside of its relationship with an organism and the mechanism by which that compound enters the human body. This reiterates the main point of the previous section, that knowledge and learning are effects of the phenomenon as a whole.


Knowledge as performance and the dance of agency

This approach takes us beyond ‘science-as-knowledge’ and to an understanding of ‘science-as-performance’. Through a series of studies Andrew Pickering deconstructs the cultural motifs of scientific work and demonstrates the folding together of human and non-human activity, and explores how in reality the development of scientific knowledge and practice operates like a ‘dance of agency’ between human and non-human.

Let me try to illustrate this dance of agency as it might appear in the observed pharmacology laboratory practical by trying to distinguish between the moments of human and non-human agency, following the sequence of activity required by the protocol:

  Human Agency Human Passivity
Sequence 1 ·      Reading array instructions

·      Discussion with bench partner

·      Measuring (water, paracetamol, acid, etc.)

·      Dispensing solutions into test tubes

·      Operating vortex machine to mix paracetamol solutions

·      Recording the process

·      Waiting for the solutions to mix and settle
Sequence 2 ·      Placing samples into the spectrophotometer ·      Waiting for the spectrophotometer to produce the results from the interaction between the basic materials (paracetamol) and the machine
Sequence 3 ·      Interpreting the results from the spectrophotometer

·      Charting the graph (based on Beer’s Law) and locating the toxicity of the ‘unknowns’

·      Recording and reporting the results

We see here that what I previously referred to as epistemic practices correlates with human agency in the laboratory practical. If we take sequence 1 the acts of measuring, recording, dispensing, mixing are classic examples of epistemic practice. However, this epistemic practice folds into and around moments where the students have to wait on the action of chemical compounds or machines to do their work. In these moments it is the non-human artefacts that have agency. For example, while operating the vortex machine it is the material agency of the mixture that takes the lead and the students can do nothing but wait. This is visually observed in the laboratory where we see the deliberate, if at times hesitant, movement of the students as they co-ordinate their actions in relation to the artefacts they rely upon to conduct the array. In one moment limbs are moved to enact measuring, or holding, or writing. In the next the student stands and waits, passive for a moment while the lead is taken over by the vortex machine. The activity takes on the character of a choreographed performance, hence the utility of Pickering’s terminology.

Viewed this way, as Barad argues, it is difficult to think of scientific knowledge as some how abstracted from the doing of science. Pharmacological knowledge is inseparable from the handling of Eppendorf pipettes, from measuring, from waiting for a vortex machine to do its work, from encountering the visual display of the spectrophotometer and performing an act of imagination to read this as being ‘toxicity’. It is inseparable from the benches and the physical organization of the laboratory. In other words, learning is something accomplished by corporeal beings, in specific places, and with artefacts. It is not a purely cognitive event. If the ‘science’ the students are engaged in is a phenomenon, as Barad claims, then learning is also an effect of the phenomenon and so is entangled with non-human action.



I began this paper by making reference to how my attention was drawn to the abundance of artefacts in this space, and how the particular relationship between people and artefacts in a specific location (a university) constituted this space as a pharmacology laboratory practical. The abundance of artefacts in this space matters to learning. Building on the notions of epistemic objects and practices, in this conclusion I want to propose that it is worth considering knowledge as embedded. This approach requires us to understand learning in ways that take use beyond that normally conveyed by humanist philosophies, and requires us to think differently about the aim of academic/educational development.

Having said that the students do not engage with paracetamol toxicity directly, this does not mean the students only engage with representations of the real or the material. Along with the symbolic (texts, diagrams, speech) the students do engage with a material reality. In the humanist paradigm this material world can sometimes get lost, obfuscated, hidden. It is not present in the same way as thought, the cognitive, and language. Yet, I hope I have convinced you that in spaces such as the pharmacology laboratory practical we are confronted with an abundance of material artefacts, we are confronted with matter. Through epistemic practices students encounter not just a symbolic world of representations (which we often take to be knowledge) but also a world of material meaning. Students’ ideas, concepts, and theories of chemical interactions with the human organism have to be understood as part of a wider material configuration that includes chemical compounds, measuring instrumentation, visual displays of light absorption, benches, pens, computers, and other bodies (the lecturer and the post doctoral students) (for a detailed discussion of material configuration and scientific practice see Barad, 2007). It is not the case, I argue, that science education and the material world are separate entities. It is through the calibration and choreographing of bodies, artefacts, and concepts that students might cross thresholds into different ways of being in the world.

Consequently, the artefacts are not neutral but are products of particular conceptions of what constitutes science. The Eppendorf pipette, paracetamol compounds, and the spectrophotometer are brought together in a particular kind of relationship with the students’ bodies in a specific place; and the students’ behaviours are modified and regulated by these artefacts. It is these particular, rather than general, articulations that we can call the phenomenon, and it is the phenomenon that is the epistemic object and simultaneously constitutes and envelopes the epistemic practices. This is why scientific knowledge is inseparable from specific scientific practices. It is why the abundance of artefacts ‘matter’; it is why learning is not something separate from the flow or dance of agency.

All of this has consequences for the practice of academic development. If academic development is framed by metaphors of acquisition then it mirrors the conception of knowledge as somehow dis-embedded from social practice and the material world (Boud & Hager, 2012). I want to finish, therefore, with some questions that are worth pursuing in order to re-frame academic/educational development practice. If we take the posthuman perspective seriously then what becomes the epistemic object of academic practice? What are the consequences of this for what constitute our epistemic practices? I believe that these two questions can form the basis for a productive research agenda.

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Techniques are what teachers use until the real teacher arrives a #cel260 story


Balthasar van den Bosch – A.M. Koldeweij, P. Vandenbroeck en B. Vermet (2001) Jheronimus Bosch. Alle schilderijen en tekeningen, Rotterdam: Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam: NAi Uitgevers [enz.], ISBN 9056622196, ill. 131, p. 150. The Conjurer

We welcomed a new intake on our Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education course.  Over Tuesday and Wednesday evening 36 lecturers and post-doctoral students arrived with a range of expectations, hopes, and concerns.

Whether career progression was a motivating factor or not, all sought some support to develop their teaching skills and knowledge.  Some would arrive explicitly aiming to grapple with theories of teaching and learning.  All would hope to leave the course with new ‘tricks and tips’, practical techniques that they could employ in their classes NOW.

But ‘tips and tricks’ is a misnomer, since it suggests a separation from theory (and that theory is somehow separate from practice).  Kurt Lewin, a scholar of very practical inclinations, is reputed to have said that,

there is nothing as practical as a good theory

In outlining the curricular intention of the course we exposed the underlying constructivist philosophies of learning, modeling the method we hoped our colleagues would adopt in relation to their own practice.  Why?

The title of this post paraphrases a comment by Parker Palmer about the nature of teaching.  In his inspiring book ‘The Courage to Teach‘ he espouses a manifesto for a heartfelt practice of teaching – teaching as service (as distinct from service teaching).  Part of his thesis is that technique alone is never enough.  We can deploy the most sophisticated or engaging methods, but if they are devoid of a wider purpose they are likely to fail.  The reality is that when we experience a good teacher this wider purpose may not be clearly articulated (to us or to themselves).  So this is not a call to theory dominated teaching.  Rather it links to the questions I think Gert Biesta asks when he seeks to reprieve the language of teaching that seems often neglected by constructivist philosophies.  He asks us to think seriously about what it is we think we teach.

Because our license to practice as university teachers is the PhD (or other similar qualification) we are actually licensed to research.  We are comfortable with our domains and communities of knowledge.  Consequently, we can be mistaken in thinking that what we teach is our subject.  But, Biesta and others suggest, what we teach are views of the world and how we engage with that world.

On the course we expose the underlying constructivist beliefs in order to demonstrate how these weave in and through the techniques we use in class.  The fact that we construct the course around a small number of key concepts (rather than a list of content); that we privilege reflective modes of inquiry; that we promote dialogical engagement are all enactments of the underlying view of knowledge and the knower.  We do not do this in order to recruit them to these philosophies.  Instead, we want them to consider the authenticity of what they do.

What is meant by authenticity here?

Going back to the way we try to model the practice we encourage our colleagues to adopt, we are also hopefully modeling an authentic practice.  Its authenticity does not derive from its proximity to constructivist approaches to teaching, but to an openness to being questioned.  If we want our students to conceive of themselves as makers of the world rather than mere consumers, to be open to different perspectives, to be attentive to the values that underpin and guide their behaviours, then our teaching needs to model that in some way (and in imperfect ways).  We need to teach in ways that show the limits of our practice.


The Mediation of Learning: When Tools Become Meaningful – A Posthuman Meditation

After a little bit of a break I am back to my writing/thinking about posthuman approaches to understanding higher education learning.  In the previous post on this I engaged with Andrew Pickering’s work looking at the practice of science.  As part of my exploration of posthuman understandings I came across the work of a Danish scholar, Cathrine Hasse.  Below are my edited notes on one of her articles; “Artefacts that talk: Mediating technologies as multistable signs and tools”.  In particular, this article helped me think about the human/non-human interactions and how this breaks down easy distinctions between humans and ‘things’ in learning situations.  The shift between ‘things’ as tools and signs was particularly instructive for me.

Abstract:  The article takes up the notion of artefacts as tools and signs and discusses how socially assistive robots impact professional work life and professional identities as multistable active change agents. It argues for a multistable understanding of tools as signs, building on a combination of post-phenomenology and cultural– historical activity theory to capture the embodied, cultural and historical learning processes initiated when technologies engage with humans in professional work life. Moreover, the article invokes the concept of relational agency as useful for capturing how staff may question the distribution of expertise between humans and machines.Subjectivity(2013)6,79–100. doi:10.1057/sub.2012.29

The discussion is built around the example of ‘Paro’, a piece of adaptive technology (socially assistive robot) designed to bring comfort and stimulation to the elderly and those with Alzheimer’s (Paro works as a robotic pet that can be stroked, will pur, etc.).

Hasse suggests that simultaneous with working as a ‘tool’- as a robot it works to calm agitated patients, it also functions as a ‘sign’ in the sense that it ‘speaks’ to us in a meaningful fashion.  Building on insights developed by Vygotsky ‘tools’ can be seen as those things that mediate human action on their environment whereas a ‘sign’ mediates this internally on our consciousness.  The use of tools can have a transformative effect on the material world (as when we learn to develop and use an axe in order to cut down trees with the intention of building a house).  Although signs are oriented to the consciousness they are also implicated in human action on their environments (so an axe becomes meaningful to human activity (a sign) in terms of its role in securing desired shelter, or as an aggressive weapon to defend oneself or dominate others – the axe becoming a weapon related to an I/thing distinction).

Hasse argues that in reality the distinction between tool and sign breaks down as artefacts are treated meaningfully by us.

What does this mean in the context of the pharmacology lab?

The students can be seen not simply to ‘use’ the apparatus as ‘objects’ without meaning (that is as tools) but interact with them as meaningful artefacts (signs).  If we understand learning as embodied, the corporeal interaction between student body, artefact and chemical compound is undifferentiated.  There is no ‘mind’ that sits wholly in a human domain separate from non-human materiality.  Instead, mind, and learning, occur as part of the human/non-human interaction. The apparatus is engaged with in a fully embodied fashion but they are also culturally and socially embedded.  In the context of the lab they carry a ‘particular’ meaning and can be articulated differently according to the emergent learning objectives of each student.   For instance, directing a lab partner to measure the water may be utilising the pipette as a tool to engage/align the partner in the lab practical, to recruit them to the task in hand.  In this instance the pipette can be seen to work as a multistable object (Hasse’s term) moving from a ‘tool’ to measure water for the practical experiment to a ‘sign’ of collaborative working and a ‘tool’ of alignment to task rather than just measurement.

The human and material agent blur into one another, they fold in on each other.

Hasse, C. (2013). Artefacts that talk: Mediating technologies as multistable signs and tools. Subjectivity, 6(1), 79-100.


Julius Axelrod

The image above is that of Julius Axelrod who, with Bernard Brodie, is seen as establishing paracetamol as a leading painkiller.

So, why Axelrod, why paracetamol?

A previous post introduced the idea of me using this blog to develop and rehearse my thinking leading to an academic article (hopefully), inspired by my observation of a pharmacology laboratory practical class.  The focus of this class was a test of the toxicity of paracetamol solutions.  This has a very practical rationale because paracetamol poisoning is so common, hence the importance of those dispensing the drug having a proper understanding of its adverse effects.

As I observed the students engaging in the ‘paracetamol array’ I was taken by the performative character of the activity.  The activity was ‘staged’ in the sense of being performed in a particular setting that gave the activity certain meaning.  Imagine this cluster of young people dressed in white lab coats conducting this test in the student bar?  In being wrenched from the lab its ‘meaning’ would change, there would be an ‘out-of-placeness’ about it; the authority and legitimacy of the activity as SCIENCE would be in question.  WHERE the array was conducted was important.  There was a distinct patterning to the movement of the students between paper, apparatus, chemical compound, and back to paper; or between the pairs of students working together (?) at their bench.

This notion of performance is important here as a key concept in posthuman understandings of science, indeed of helping me understand the activity as science.

So, in what sense might we say these students were engaged in science?

Let me begin with a very brief description of the setting (though I will give more detail of the activity later).

The space within which the activity took place was undoubtedly a ‘laboratory’ something like this,


with approximately 50 students wearing white lab coats.  It had all the semiotic clues that would lead most observers to conclude that what was going on in this space was science. The benches and the other non-human artefacts – measuring instruments and machines, as well as water and various chemicals function both as ‘tools’ that enable the practices of scientific endeavour (and science education in this case) but also as ‘signs’, signaling a particular meaning to the practices undertaken in this space.

This sense of scientific activity immediately begins to break down the distinctions between science as knowledge and science as practice.  And it is this latter sense of scientific endeavour that has preoccupied the work of Andrew Pickering.  Andrew Pickering draws attention to the cultural portrayal of science as primarily cognitive, certainly a conception carried in higher education:

Scientists feature as disembodied intellects making knowledge in a field of facts and observations (and language, as the reflexivists remind us)

Andrew Pickering (1995) The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency, & Science, Chicago: Chicago University Press (see also here)

Through a series of studies Andrew Pickering deconstructs the cultural motifs of scientific work and demonstrates the folding together of human and non-human activity, and in going beyond ‘science-as-knowledge’ he argues that this takes us to an understanding of science-as-performance.

This performative understanding of science turns many common-sense notions on their head.  Such notions can lead us to perceive the world as one where ‘facts’ and ‘events’ are there to be found and observed respectively.  Instead, Andrew Pickering conjures up a world of agency – human and non-human.

He uses the example of the weather to illustrate this. Weather acts upon us without us willing it.  Our response to weather is not purely cognitive, but requires non-human materiality in the form of clothes and shelter.  But clothes and shelter have to be understood as not simply extensions of human thought and action, as things that emanate from a human origin (usually understood as cognition).  While cognition plays a part, our responses cannot be reduced to the purely human realm.  Also, the non-human material world does not act simply as ‘tools’ (as things to keep us safe from the weather).  The constituent elements that make up clothes and shelter will continue to ‘do things’ – that is have effects regardless of human action.  It is not the clothes and shelter that have material agency, but the physical and chemical properties of their constituent elements.  However, conjoined with human action and thought they may  have particular effects, which then impact upon human action and thought – human behaviour and thought changing as a consequence of new capabilities afforded by clothing and shelter.  It seems common-sense but for the fact that this understanding often appears missing in everyday language – including academic and scientific.

This is best illustrated with reference to the relationship between scientific knowledge and scientific apparatus/machines, and especially the concept of temporal emergence.  But before I do that I need to briefly outline the process the students followed in the lab:

 The students were required to conduct a colorimetric assay of a paracetamol solution in order to determine the therapeutic/toxic concentration.

The assay involved the students following a procedure similar to this below:

Preparation of a series of paracetamol solutions (some with known concentrations and some ‘unknown’) for comparative purposes involving processes of measuring (weighing and liquid measures), use of various apparatus (pipettes, including eppendorf pipettes, flasks, vortex machine for mixing, spectrophotometer), and a number of chemical compounds (water, sodium nitrate, sodium hydroxide).

Based on the reading from the spectrophotometer the students then had to construct a standard curve (based on Beer’s Law) and determine the concentration of paracetamol in the samples of ‘unknown’ toxicity.


Pickering’s discussion focuses on the relationship between scientific thought, practice and the apparatus (or machines) in the particular examples he investigates.  Scientific ‘machines’ work to inscribe material (non-human) agency.  He explores how in practice the development of scientific knowledge and practice operates like a ‘dance of agency’ between human and non-human with machines mediating this.

Let me try to illustrate this dance of agency as it might appear in the observed pharmacology lab by trying to distinguish between the moments of human and non-human agency:

Human Activity

  • reading array instructions
  • discussion with lab partner
  • measuring (water, paracetamol, acid, etc.)
  • dispensing solutions into test tubes
  • operating vortex machine
  • recording process and results

Human Passivity

  • waiting for the solutions to mix and settle

[during this period it is the material agency of the mixture that takes the lead and the students can do nothing but wait.]

Human Agency

  • placing samples into the spectrophotometer 

Human Passivity

  • waiting for the spectrophotometer to produce the results from the interaction between the basic materials (paracetamol) and the machine

Human Agency

  • interpreting the results from the spectrophotometer
  • charting the graph (based on Beer’s Law) and locating the toxicity of the ‘unknowns’
  • recording and reporting the results



It is within this dance of agency that something called learning occurs.

We can perhaps view this as patterned activity in the sense of a grammar of practice where this grammar does not provide us with the specifics of each articulation.  While there will be a grammar to the students’ practice in the lab, we cannot know in advance what the particular articulations of learning will be in the interaction of human/non-human.  In this regard, learning objectives simply outline the teacher’s (or scientist’s) intentions, but in the end learning will be emergent often relating to specific tasks and problems; learning cannot be predicted other than in the doing of the array. Learning is an accomplished activity rather than a simple acquisition of external knowledge or cognitive activity. Learning is something that occurs in the completeness of the doing, and embodied and situated accomplishment (this will be explored in a further post).

Temporal emergence, then,  might be seen as relating the students’ emergent learning outcomes (ELOs).  These ELOs might develop in real-time (hence the emphasis on ‘temporal’) shifting from a concentration on the knowledge domain, to the need to align their partner to the task-in-hand, to just ‘getting through the day’, to recognition of a psychological resistance to some element of the course.

As part of the temporal emergence of their learning the student might usefully be seen struggling with aligning themselves to the task-in-hand, of applying the necessary protocols (following the instructions for measuring and mixing) for the array and their conceptual understanding (of chemical processes and their practical application).  There could be an iterative relationship between the grasp of the process and their conceptual understanding.  This would mostly likely be more visible or pronounced when something didn’t work (requiring a process of reverse engineering to see what happened).

I will come back to this idea of the way the materiality of the lab and the practical actions of lab-work ‘carry’ knowledge and understanding in another post.

Here, I have tried to relay my current understanding of a complex interpretation of scientific practice through a posthuman lens and its possible application to higher education learning.

Further posts in this series will explore the materiality of lab-work and how this ‘carries’ learning; the organised nature of learning as a social activity of alignment.

In the writing of these posts I am struggling with ideas that take me beyond my habitual zones of practice.  By the time I write another iteration of this it is likely that I will have altered some of my understandings.  It should go without saying that any comments and suggestions from readers would be vital in this process.


Emergent outcomes from a field of weeds – or how certainty can emerge from anxiety (a #rhizo15 story)


I have just watched a video of @davecormier where he uses the metaphor of the ‘weed’ as an alternative to the dominant, normative models of curriculum.

In the normative idea of curriculum, curricula ideas (a mix of ontology and epistemology) are reduced to content (syllabus), and learning construed as a linear path from ignorant to knowledgeable, where the teacher is the one who knows.

This normative idea is reinforced through the technology of the Learning Objective. Having just taught a class on LOs and got the participants to re-work their courses in light of this I fell upon a different idea, that of Emergent Outcomes.  Now, I know why Biggs has developed the idea of learning objectives – its intent was to design in equity and not let teachers privilege those who already ‘get it’ and neglect those who don’t.

But it all too readily becomes a closed circuit – as many participants in my class argued.

And that’s when I came across emergent outcomes.  Emergent outcomes are conducive, I feel, to the connectivist approach and rhizomatic learning in that knowledge and learning are seen to emerge from the context of learning or practice.  As is becoming clear to me from exchanges with folks who were on #rhizo14 learning objectives are multiple, located (initially) in each individual (and we know from experience that despite setting LOs for our courses all students will have their own and develop new ones as they go through).

So, as I slowly lean in towards #rhizo15 my objectives are loose.

I have a recent experience that taught me to be open and resist the desire to place too much apparent order on events.  For a moment, during the recent #TJC15 (Twitter Journal Club) my attention was taken away from the buzz of tweets.  On turning back towards the dashboard I realised that I was ‘lost’.  But lost implied that perhaps I SHOULD have control.  But, following Jacque Ranciere, what if I simply enacted openness, rhizomatic thinking, and waited to see what happened?

I stepped back, I waited, and a cluster of words rose up to capture my attention.

Let’s hope I can maintain such equanimity.

the neglect of ‘things’ in university learning – an initial inquiry


Models, illustrations and diagrams serve, together with mathematical signs, as basic epistemological tools in science

(Cathrine Hasse 2008 Postphenomenology: Learning Cultural Perception in Science)

Recently I had the pleasure of observing a pharmacology lab practical.  As a neophyte academic developer I felt that it was important to familiarise myself with what ‘teaching’ meant in different disciplines, and so not rely solely on my own disciplinary perspective and theory.  And this is where pharmacology comes in.

My own academic background is in education, and more specifically the sociology of education, and in recent years in the study of higher education. Although my move into academic development is requiring a re-forming of my structure of knowledge and practice, I am still operating in familiar landscapes.  Recognising that many of my colleagues who participate in our courses do not approach this domain with familiarity – of concepts, language, genre of writing, etc., I wanted to put myself in situations where I had to struggle to become familiar.

And so, I found myself in a crowded chemistry laboratory, a guest of the pharmacology department.

As I stood there observing the activity I found myself making mental notes that related to two sets of literature that I had been engaging with – practice theory & posthumanism.  I have written previously about my interest in practice theory and  how this could inform academic development.  So I was intrigued about how knowledge and learning was embedded in and across the varied practices the students were engaged in, and how this worked against a view of learning that placed undue attention on the purely cognitive.  Simultaneously I was taken with the ‘dance of agency‘ between students and the non-human – the way we might understand how ‘doing’ science may be ‘unthinkable’ without also considering the active role of the apparatus the students engaged with and the chemical compounds they relied upon in the lab activity.  That is, the way the students’ knowing and learning was essentially mediated by and entangled with apparatus, technology and chemical compounds.

As I observed the way pairs of students sought to align each other and align themselves with the apparatus, technology and chemicals, an idea slowly emerged.  And this idea is taking the form of some ‘continuous publishing‘ whereby I will use this blog to develop and rehearse my thinking with the intention of writing an article over the coming weeks.

I begin by sharing with you some initial notes from my research journal.

Snippet 1:

My approach in this paper is ‘posthumanist’ and ’emergent’ in orientation.  As such it differs in emphasis to more traditional, humanist accounts of learning in higher education.  It touches directly on constructivist theories of learning which are distinctly humanist.  As I will argue, my approach does not discount the importance of human agency in the learning process, but it does displace such agency as the final point of analytical reference.  Instead, I extend constructivist understandings so that we consider the way human actors, processes, concepts, and non-human materials are intimately related.  I argue that understanding, knowing and learning are effects of this entanglement of human, discursive and non-human.  In doing this I am deeply influenced by the practice turn in social theory, especially the idea of knowledge as embedded in practice.  Consequently, learning is viewed performatively, as an emergent quality, as something that emerges from practice and is not exterior to it.

Snippet 2:



Over the coming days I attempt to clarify my understanding of the two main literatures of posthumanism (as related to science and learning) and practice theory.  The entries will, of necessity, be disjointed, provisional, EMERGENT.

Didaktik, Bildung and the Beautiful Risk of Education – Reflections on troubling reading.

I am ‘teaching’ on a Postgraduate Certificate in Teaching and Learning in Higher Eduction.  As part of this the participants (academic colleagues from within my own institution)  are required to maintain a reflective learning journal.  I have decided to maintain my own learning journal and, unlike the participants, I make this open to all on the course.  It sits somewhere between modelling how to ‘do’ reflective writing for professional learning and being honest about the fact that I do not have all the answers ( I am not a master explicator).

I share my second entry here as it pick sup on earlier comments I have made on troubled reading.


In coming to organising this particular session I am very conscious that I do not have much experience of large group teaching. Almost all of my teaching has been on post-graduate courses and consequently involved small cohorts. What I do have, and share with many of the students on this particular course, is my experience of being a student and experiencing the ubiquitous ‘lecture’. It is important to outline the context of my higher education because the experience of any educational event is largely determined by the particularities of the course, student demographic, location, etc.

I entered higher education in my mid-20s and so came in as a ‘mature’ student. I had no intention of going to university. I had not enjoyed school and only went back to study A Levels (senior cycle in the Irish system) because the bottom had just fallen out of the economy in the part of England I lived. Literally, the industrial landscape disappeared with the large smelting plants and metal works being erased from the skyline. The air quality improved but we were left with few jobs. So, I went back to school but with no plan as to what this might lead to. I didn’t complete my studies and left as soon as I found work. For a number of years I moved from one undemanding job to another, traveled a little, and ended up, by accident, on a community project. This altered my perception of what was possible to BE in life, brought me into the company of people who had been to university, and who encouraged me to consider this option for myself. The withdrawal of funding, during another economic slump, in the 1980s offered me the opportunity to go to college. My choice was to train to be a teacher (I am still trying to work out how I came to that decision). I felt I ‘should’ do something more vocational, and this was a better option than one or two others at the time.

So ‘lectures’ were part of the repertoire of learning experiences, but not the main one. Lectures do not rise up in my memory as important learning experiences. They were mostly boring. An example will illustrate my recollection of the lecture during my undergraduate studies. Being and education degree we had a lot of lectures on psychology. The main lecturer turned up on time. He used acetates (this was pre-powerpoint and widespread use of computer technology), and he provided us with handouts. But, the handouts were usually faded because they had been printed off years before and had been stacked up on his windowsill – hence the fading from the sun. The handouts simply repeated his lectures. My response was to strategically miss his lectures and read the books instead. I spent a lot of time in the library. But maybe this is in part the response of a mature student. The research and anecdotal evidence suggests that mature students are often keen but also strategic in their approach to learning. This particular lecturer relied upon delivery of information but with little space for reflection or engagement. This contrasted with the science lecturers (I eventually opted for arts as my specialty). They had a clearly articulated view of what they were doing. They saw school science as being about students behaving like scientists, engaging in activities were ‘science like’, to think like scientists. And so this was the view they took with us as well. I only had these folks in the first two years because we specialised in our third year, but they had a big impact on me. Their lectures were interactive, they got us to think not just about the process of teaching (the how) but also the ‘why’ and therefore the ‘what’. Sure, there was a good deal of information transfer, but my overriding impression is not of that.

When I came to take on lectures while working as a researcher I was ill-equipped. I had spent years working in community settings where ‘lecturing’ would see you heading straight for the exit door. I had taken in a view that any worthwhile learning came through ‘working with’ people. But how was I to do that when I did the occasional lecture to 200-300 undergraduates. I was often called in to do set piece lectures on ‘gender and education’ or ‘social class and education’ or ‘race and education’. These were stand alone, not even sitting within a wider programme that focused on these topics. Nobody advised me. I was given a timetable and that was it. But, maybe because of the community-based work and because of the need to ‘engage’ people who were unsure about why they were taking part in our activities, I had an intuitive understanding that I needed to capture the audiences attention. So, I used a lot of visual material. Computer-based presentation software was by now becoming common. So I used that. But I also used a lot of video. This meant video tape – so the process of identifying which segments to use was time consuming compared to now and the technical aspect was often beyond the scope of any individual teacher and required a lot of assistance from technicians.

Intuitively I also found myself using a lot of questions. But my skill at this was limited, and so often failed to encourage discussion (let alone obvious reflection). I think what I did take from my community-based work was that you had to be clear about what the key issues were you needed to build your activity around. This should frame the content and form of the activity.

The truth is that I made it up as I went along and with hardly any feedback.

However, these formative experiences did feed into further reflection when teaching became much more a fundamental part of my work in higher education. But I would say that I still have a tendency to try and cover too much ‘content’ without enough thought about matching the pace of a teaching session to the deep structure or deep learning I want to encourage. There is a sense in which I feel that unless I ‘give’ students a lot of ‘content’ then somehow I have failed them.


My reflection here operates in relation to: reflective description and analytical reflection.

Descriptive reflection

In selecting the core materials for this session I relied upon discussions within the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL). So, the articles approach the issue of large group teaching is mostly framed by constructivist assumptions. This doesn’t mean that lectures are rejected. Phil Race’s chapter, for instance, approaches it in a pragmatic fashion, providing really useful tips for structuring lectures. But, as with the three articles, there is a general perspective that lectures are ill-suited for cultivating deep learning. And it is this primary concern with ‘learning’, and specifically learning understood in cognitive terms, which points to the underpinning constructivist philosophy. Constructivism, as I pointed out in Session 1, also underpins much of academic development as a field of practice. And so, this assumption fed through into the selection of videos as supplementary material.

Analytical reflection

The constructivist presumption is that we can organize ‘learning’ experiences in such a way that we can lead students towards deep learning. But can we, and should academic developers, make that suggestion (no matter how subtle) at all? I am unsure. I have been enmeshed in the constructivist presumption for so long that it is difficult to imagine stepping outside of that.

The main challenge for me at the moment is my engagement with discussions of Bildung/Didaktik and the work of Gert Biesta.

There is a lot of similarity between the constructivist approach and that of Bildung/Didktik. Two recent texts I have read (‘Restrained Teaching: the common core of Didaktik’ by Stefan Hopman & ‘Microlearning and (Micro)Didaktik (On Microlearning)’ by Norm Friesen). Both stress the importance of the ‘learner’ and ‘learning’ and not just ‘teaching’; that learning is best understood as an active engagement with content; and sometimes a radical critique of content led ideas of curriculum. But didaktik is concerned mostly with teaching and the teacher, rather than the learner. Hopman’s article challenges some of my presumptions about leading students towards deep learning. He argues that in the didaktik approach teaching and learning are viewed as autonomous of each other, and the content of teaching does not ‘lead’ towards any particular outcome. From this perspective, my selection of particular content (core materials) does not necessarily carry the meaning I might wish students to adopt/learn.  The meaning of any educational interaction will be determined by the relationship between particular students, with particular teachers, with particular content, and particular environments. One example is that a student from a Quaker tradition will engage with the study of war with a particular perspective separate from that of the teacher’s intention. Following this, I have to make (the almost obvious) assumption that students on this course will construct their own meaning within the didaktik triangle (student-teacher-content). But more than this, the idea of bildung provides a much broader conception of the purpose of education than that often captured in concepts of ‘curriculum’ or ‘instruction’ or ‘teaching’. Bildung, in its reduced sense, is about the cultivation of the whole person and introduces into teaching/learning the idea that teaching should be aimed at assisting the student to engage with learning in a way that enables them to enter the world. I think I will come back to this in future entries.

Gert Biesta approaches the issue of education very much with bildung/didaktik as his cultural background. In a series of texts he has argued against the dominance in Anglo-American educational discussion of ‘learning’, and so challenges many of the presumptions of the kind of constructivism that has animated my own practice (and many of the ideas students will meet in this course). He argues for the reclaiming of the importance of ‘teaching’. But what he means by this is contrary to the idea of teaching as ‘control’ or primarily about the delivery of content. His argument for the reclamation of teaching (as different from learning) is that in his conception of education the role of the teacher is to bring something new to the didaktik triangle. Also, similar to bildung, he stresses that real education is full of ‘risk’ in that what happens in education escapes our attempts to control it. Now this potentially challenges some of the ideas that will be dealt with in Semester 2, particularly that of ‘learning outcomes’.

There is much more here for me to examine.

Biesta, G. (2014) The Beautiful Risk of Education, London: Paradigm

Friesen, N. (2006), ‘‘Microlearning and (micro)didaktik’’, paper presented at Micromedia and eLearning 2.0: Getting the Big Picture, June 8-9, Innsbruck, available at:

Hopmann, S. (2007 ) Restrained Teaching: the common core of Didaktik, European Educational Research Journal, 6(2): 109-124

That’s Fine in Theory – But What Use is it in Practice? More contemplations on ‘Troubling Reading’

There is nothing so practical as a good theory.

So said Kurt Lewin, claimed to be a founder of social psychology and action learning.

This statement expresses itself as a paradox because it works with the apparent duality between theory and practice, or to put it another way – education and the ‘real world’.  In this binary construction the ‘real world’ is the location of practice, of life, in contrast to the world of education and theory which takes on a deathly pallor.  Theory, then, is seen to have little use to life.  Lewin’s inversion of this makes it paradoxical, subverts the ‘common-sense’ character of the original binary opposition.

So, how then to make sense of Max Van Manen’s claim that phenomenology, that exquisite family of theory emanating from German idealism, is concerned with the ‘practice of living’?

Van Manen states this in his article titled ‘Phenomenology of Practice’.  In this fine piece of prose Van Manen lays claim to the usefulness of theory, simultaneously asserting the practicality of theory AND challenging the usefulness of a common-sense view of practice:

Thus, we wish to explore how a phenomenology of practice may speak to our personal and professional lives


For Van Manen theory is eminently useful and practical, enabling us to gain purchase on what our ‘practice’ may be BECAUSE phenomenology is intimately concerned with how we live, how we experience life.  But, theory is not useful if it simply promotes ‘instrumental action, efficiency or technical efficacy’.

Rather, a phenomenology of practice aims to open up possibilities for creating formative relations between being and acting, between who we are and how we act, between thoughtfulness and tact.


There is an ethical content to this that can often be missing from ‘theory-lite’ modes of thinking and teaching.  Here I have in mind some aspects of Action Research and Action Learning.

As noted in some earlier posts I have been engaging with these literatures in order to enrich my own professional knowledge and practice in academic development.  In one sense, our colleagues want something useful – new techniques for teaching or assessment, new skills in learning technologies, tips on how to supervise more effectively.  And yes, we try to do this.  But we also encourage them to critically reflect on this, and to some extent to deconstruct the normative content of what they claim to ‘want’.

But much Action Research and Action Learning would claim the same.  Its just that in reading some of this material I sometimes get a feeling, and it often presents itself as a feeling, of uncomfortableness.  Its almost as if I want to say: “It sounds fine in practice, but what use is it in theory?”.  What I really mean by this is that the variations of ‘reflection-on-practice’ and ‘reflection-in-practice’ bracket the social world, the world of power and politics.  There is often a distinct absence of political economy, of gender, social class and race.  This is partly an effect of the location of the practice of much of the AR/AL I have been reading – management education.

For the purpose of this entry I need to put to one side the issue of the hyperbolic claims for critical theories of education that I have been embedded within all my professional life.  I do want to say that there is a rigorous discussion within management education scholarship about issues of power and privilege.  Its just in reading about ‘how to’ do it (AR/AL) this is not so apparent.  It kind of speaks to me as the victory of practice over theory, of unconsidered life over the considered life.

And that is why this article by Van Manen is appealing to me.

Thinking of the importance we give to reflection as a methodology of professional education, Van Manen directs attention to the fact that reflection was an object of theoretical interest to Husserl.  Our ‘experience’ of the world as temporal, as linked, as coherent, is an effect of perception – that is we do not ‘experience’ the world as a series of ‘now’ which we can then differentiate in terms of past, present and future.  In asking our colleagues to ‘reflect’ on their experience of academic practice we are actually (if I understand Van Manen and Husserl correctly) asking them to bring objects into their perceptual field, to make aspects of practice intentional objects of our consciousness.  In doing this aspects of what might be considered experience ‘in the past’ or ‘in the future’ are already changed.  This is because we do not retain images of past events as fixed.  In attending to a direct event or object (lets say our use of presentation software in large class teaching) we are already framing it in relation to ‘past’ (retention) and anticipated (protension) events.  And what memories (if indeed these actually ‘exist’) we may have of previously using presentation software is transformed by brining an immediate object within our intentional gaze.  Got it?  I am not sure I have quite got it yet.

Let me try this again.

In asking our colleagues to intentionally focus on their use of presentation software now, in the past, and in the future we appear to be asking them to perceive these practices as somehow discrete entities. For Husserl and Heidegger and other phenomenologists we (as observers of temporal time) do not actually stand outside of the experience of time.  There is no separation between ‘us’ and time.  Time is a ‘taken-for-granted’, something we experience primordially and through our bodies.  The pedagogy of reflection (using learning journals for instance) jolts us out of the ‘taken-for-granted’, makes the past-present-future of using presentation software an ‘object’ that we can some how interpret ‘as if’ it was something outside of the normal flow of practice.  This is rather similar to Bourdieu’s argument that in research (as a particular social practice) we wrench events out of the flow of life and make them ‘objects of study’).  But this flow of practice is full of interpretation, or pre-understanding (of what teaching is, of what learning is, of what learning technologies are); understandings that are often unarticulated.  The jolt to the ‘taken-for-granted’ can (and I emphasise ‘can’) make us more aware (bring into consciousness) these pre-understandings and therefore the potential for creating new meaning.  The ‘meaning’ of ‘presentation software’ arises from the narrative  or story in which it is situated.  This might be a narrative that places learning technologies within a person’s sense of themselves as a particular kind of educator; or within a story of career progression that necessitates (for that person) getting ‘such and such’ a skill or certificate under their belt; or perhaps in a narrative of being ‘out-of-place’ in academia and so needing to ‘prove’ oneself through taking  up a professional development course.  It will always be this learning at this time for this person.  There is never experience in a general or objective sense. The ‘meaning’ of ‘presentation software’ therefore depends on what matters at that moment for that person.  Therefore, phenomenological theory directs us to the central importance of ‘practice’ shorn of its ‘taken-for-granted’ garb.

Is this the lesson from phenomenology?

From the phenomenological perspective there is no me and then the world I engage with, I am in the world; there is no learning technology with which I engage, me and the technology and my use of it are all incorporated in my practice.  My practice, my sense of self in this practice, cannot be captured adequately by the language of cognition alone.  Teaching, as any of us will testify if we are honest, is about mood, atmosphere, relationships – it is what Van Manen talks of as pathic (as in empathy or sympathy).  The local or private knowledge of the practitioner and the public (abstract) knowledge valued by academia are melded  into one experiential, lived sensibility of ‘doing’ teaching, of ‘doing’ learning technologies.  The ‘I’ or ‘me’ is in the practice rather than (cognitive) observer of that practice.


In conclusion, Van Manen says:

To reiterate, we may say that a phenomenology of practice operates in the space of the formative relations between who we are and who we may become, between how we think or feel and how we act. And these formative relations have pedagogical consequence for professional and everyday practical life.




[Does that make sense?  As you can see I am working this out as I go along.]